For years I thought of myself as a writer. Nearly two decades now. One could blame the encouragement of my teachers. While I performed well in school overall and prided myself on academic excellence, one area that was typically flawless was writing. Even if I missed the mark on a writing assignment (in a non-English subject of course), the teacher had strong feedback about the writing itself.
And, for reasons that we will not explore here, I developed around the same time a paracosm. It was from that early point I began working on a novel. Let me tell you about this novel. At one point it was high fantasy, another pure Lovecraftian horror. It existed as a single novel, an anthology of short stories, a limited series, and an ongoing, recurring character. The novel had no real shape or form, only the vague notion of a story.
As years progressed and the story never coalesced into something I came to the realisation that I was not a “writer”. I had one story, no sense of how to tell it, and little understanding of anything beyond that. Any and all writing skill I possessed was useless in a world where, had I had a better understanding, I would write the one story and then be artistically bankrupt.
I never lost my love of stories in general and turned my attention to others. I revisited old novels, searched for new ones, took a closer look at cinema, and began to cultivate some musical appreciation. I examined why I liked the works that I did, and what specifically put me off the ones I didn’t. As I learned to articulate the artistry of others’ works I also began to reshape my context for pieces I knew from years ago. Artists to whom I paid little attention now had my appreciation.
That is when the journey began, even if I did not realise it yet.
“Little Women” is probably the first novel that I discovered and loved out of personal choice. Everything else had been required reading or someone said, “You should check out ________.” With Louisa May Alcott’s work I had a general interest in the content of a classic novel written by a woman – and an American woman at that. I knew of Austen and the Brontë sisters, even though I had not read their works yet, but Alcott was from my corner of the world.
I could go into detail about what was so special about “Little Women” but then we might not get to anything else. Besides, we will have to return to “Little Women” in a bit.
Some of my artistic rediscovery was deliberate – I studied the evolution of music in the United States (highly recommend, by the way) and significant artists in that evolution. Then those artists would lead to others and so forth.
Some of the discovery was accidental though. In 2013, Lorde broke out in the United States in a big way with the single “Royals”, a song that I enjoyed but not to the extent that it compelled me to check out the rest of her discography. Worse yet, “Royals” was so popular and received so much radio play that I had to step away from it. It just did not land the way it might have.
Later that same year saw the release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire but it would be a bit longer before I discovered Lorde’s cover of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. As has happened with countless other things, it presented something familiar in a new context. I knew the Tears for Fears song – it kind of annoyed me, just a generic pop 80s sound.
Lorde revitalised it with an intensity and a haunting quality. In her version I felt a young couple in love (“Holding hands as the walls come crumbling down / When they do I’ll be right behind you”) who aren’t immune to that world, but it’s a world of people jockeying for power and control. In short, the song has a deeper and darker meaning than the pop sound of the 80s got across (I now have more respect for the Tears for Fears version, too). Lorde opened that door.
This time she opened the door in a way that I could not ignore and I dove into her full discography. Her voice alone fascinates me and I would be content to hear Lorde perform songs written by others. The nature of her songs elevated her from “one of the musical talents I enjoy” to “absolutely, one of my favourite artists of any kind”.
Her songs rely rather heavily on monarchic imagery and allude to the experience of a young woman, a young person trying to live in this world. The lyrics reference teens with imperfect skin in “cities you’ll never see on the screen”, at times outright criticising the celebrity- and money-obsessed nature of society. It focuses on love, sometimes even simple and fleeting.
All of this discovery occurs, of course, within the spectrum of my personal experience and perspective. I have written previously about the admiration I had for girls growing up – not in the sense that I had crushes or felt that I was a girl but in the sense that girls seemed to have this secret world. It did not exist for girls or women collectively, but each one had a secret world and they might share them in small groups with other girls.
I was a boy and life felt simple and somewhat annoying. A lot of the elements of that annoyance reflect what one hears described often today as toxic masculinity. Whether they will admit to it or not, many men reading this know exactly the experience I mean, one in which, because one was a boy, we faced social pressure to behave a certain way and that way felt stupid.
Some boy on the playground decided to throw an insult, throw an insult back. Escalate to punches if needed, but the last thing a boy should do is shrug off the comment and walk away. I was one to walk away. They invited additional ribbing at times for being too stupid or cowardly to come up with a response. The problem did not plague my entire childhood because I had a reputation for intelligence and kindness that was known among my classmates. For me it got to a point where I did not hear taunting or insults because everyone knew I would not humour it.
For the most part, I experienced a lot of this as a spectator rather than firsthand. I did not understand parts of it (like an attitude among some adults that football was for boys and soccer was for wimps – one should at least play both), I just knew that I found it stupid. As I got older, the behaviours changed and I became involved again briefly; others involved me long enough to determine that I still had no interest. No drugs, no drinking, no casual hookups – I was not a wet blanket for others, but I had no interest and I particularly hated that people viewed them as things I should be doing because of my age or gender.
That is part one and I humbly ask that one holds this thought for a moment. We need a hard segue here.
While that personal background developed, I also continued to develop my fandoms.
The Harry Potter movies took the world by storm and, for reasons somewhat connected to the first part, I identified with Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger. She moved on from the role also to play Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle and several other movies I enjoyed, along with beginning HeForShe and advocating for other social issues. I became a dedicated Emma Watson fan.
Along the same time I developed a strong liking for Saoirse Ronan. I saw 2007’s Atonement because I already liked James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, but it was the youngest incarnation of Briony that captured my focus. Saoirse was one of those young actors that felt like it was the launch of a career. Indeed it was as she went on to Hanna, The Lovely Bones, Brooklyn, and several other great works.
Like Emma Watson, I also found myself charmed by her public appearances. Born in the United States but raised in Ireland, she seemed to have a similar culturally Irish Catholic experience (for all my current agnosticism, I did grow up in the Catholic church and it had an influence I cannot ignore). Seeing her charming mix of earnestness, awkwardness, kindness, and intelligence, she became the sort of person one doesn’t know but still feels like, “We’d be great friends if our paths had crossed.”
That is where the journey began to reveal itself to me. Saoirse had completed work on the film Lady Bird and people could not say enough about it. Saoirse was incredible and Laurie Metcalf was incredible; their relationship was brilliant and this new director, Greta Gerwig, handled everything masterfully. I knew of Greta Gerwig only somewhat at that point, having seen her in To Rome With Love and a few other things, but she was definitely not ‘on my radar’ so to speak.
Then came the announcement: Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig would helm a new adaptation of “Little Women” and Saoirse Ronan would star. Coming off Lady Bird, that already had all the earmarks of success. Timotheé Chalamet had the role of Laurie. A character I adored played by a promising young actor I liked on the heels of Christian Bale’s (another favourite) 1994 performance. As additional news rolled in that cinematic titans like Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep signed on it became clear that it might be a classic in the making.
Two more dominoes fell. Emma Stone, who I do enjoy, was attached to play Meg March but could not fulfil the obligation due to another project – so Emma Watson would step into the role. Then we had the release of Midsommar to provide an introduction to Florence Pugh’s talent. By that point, my excitement for Little Women was off the charts. Remember how excited people were for Avengers: Endgame and Rise of Skywalker? That’s is where I was in anticipation of Gerwig’s movie.
The movie comes out and I loved it – even better than I had hoped. Why? Gerwig did not simply put the novel on screen or changed some detail of it, like setting it in present day, for no good reason.
Well, the piece I linked earlier goes into great detail about why this adaptation of “Little Women” is worth all of the praise it received. Gerwig did get snubbed by the Academy.
It also pointed me towards the next two dominoes in the sequence. First, I had to go back and watch Frances Ha, perhaps the most notable thing in Gerwig’s filmography prior to her directorial turn. The parallels with Lady Bird and Little Women were clear. As referenced in that piece, a lot of it had to do with the experience of a young woman transitioning from girl to woman.
In the process of describing Gerwig’s approach to stories, Twitter user Frankie Thomas also suggested the unique role for Theodore Laurence in all of this: he never got to be a girl. Teddy’s role in the story is that of outsider looking in with envious eyes and desperately wanting to belong.
Coming as it did in this period of artistic examination and appreciation, wherein I had already resolved to articulate why I liked something or what worked and did not work about it, it awoke something in me. I had viewed writing through technical eyes, taken a path that was too rigid and literal. I possessed the skills to assess writing and therefore the knowledge to compose it. I did not have one story to tell but one theme or set of themes that mattered more to me than others – but within that framework could exist any number of stories.
It was awoken by the very thing that compelled me to develop my writing ability as a child – a sense of isolation, a need to examine and to make sense of the world around me.
Anyone who writes is a writer, but this recent journey woke something in me and compels a higher quality of production for no reason other than the satisfaction I now derive from the process.